Archive for April, 2008

Beyond organic: Biodynamic wines

April 29, 2008

When we were in California last November, we visited the Bonny Doon Vineyard in California’s Central Coast region. I later wrote about its quirky owner Randall Grahm leading the way in introducing biodynamic growing practices in producing his wines.

The biodynamic movement is growing in the industry, slowly but surely. Wineries are finding that they’re not only able to have a smaller negative impact on the environment, but they’re actually producing better wines and improving their own working environment at the same time.

As this Wine Spectator video shows, biodynamics is more than just replacing pesticides and chemical fertilizers with organic alternatives—it’s about achieving biodiversity and a natural balance.

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New, new, new: Dance, art and a restaurant

April 23, 2008

“New.” There’s just something enticing—something promising—about that word.

Last week, we got a triple dose of new, starting Monday with a lucky find in the Chicago Reader.

New Dance. There’s plenty of wonderful dance to be had in Chicago. The always exciting Hubbard Street Dance Chicago has been a fixture here since its founding in 1974. And the Joffrey Ballet made Chicago its home in 1995. Numerous smaller companies also flourish here.

But where do all the new dancers and choreographers come from? Where do they build their skills and try out their ideas? One answer is Dance Chance, a new program produced by DanceWorks Chicago and hosted at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts.

Once a month, Dance Chance offers three rising choreographers 15 minutes each in a one-hour program to share some of their latest work. The final 15 minutes provides an opportunity for the artists and audience to discuss the performances. At the end of the show, three new choreographers’ names are drawn from a fish bowl for the next performance—hence the “chance.”

The choreographers for the April 14 performance were Christopher McCray, Monique Haley and Dario Gabriel Mejia. Their works and styles were all quite different, but all quite polished. And their dancers did the works justice, displaying poise, grace and amazing athleticism.

Most of the audience of 50 or so seemed to be made up of other dancers and choreographers. And everyone was thrilled to witness all this exciting new work. I know we were. And we’ll be back for the next performance May 12.

New Art. Twice a year, the students of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago get a real gut check on how they’re doing, in the form of a two-day sale of their wares.

The Spring Art Sale last Friday and Saturday featured the work of more than 120 current students, all for sale, in the school’s historic ballroom on South Michigan Avenue. The work was diverse—a mix of jewelry, paintings, sculpture, photography, prints, multimedia and even fashion. Some of it felt like the kind of stuff produced for class assignments, but some was genuinely exciting, work that gave you the sense of a young artist actively pursuing his or her vision. And the prices were quite reasonable—sometimes even bargain basement.

There were of course any number of things that caught our eye. But in the end, we narrowed it down to this piece of ceramic sculpture by Erin McGarry. Not sure if it says more about us as ornithology lovers or pigeon haters.

New Food. Does anyone need to be told that the restaurant business is a risky one, that more new restaurants fail than succeed? So it’s that much cooler to see a wonderful place like mado get off to such a great start. When we went there on Friday night after the art sale, it had been open exactly two days. I know it takes a while to work out all the little bugs in any new endeavor, especially a restaurant. So I was prepared to overlook them. Only none happened. The food was impeccable; Marion called the lamb loin with toasted garlic and olives, cooked on their formidable wood grill, the best lamb she’s ever eaten. Of course everything our party of four ordered was perfect. The service was friendly and welcoming, the atmosphere relaxing and conducive to conversation.

mado is owned by a husband and wife team of self-professed green-market dorks, Rob and Allison Levitt. Their menu states simply, “At mado, we strive to use responsibly raised local products; mado proudly supports Chicago farmers’ markets.” And they mean it. When we ordered ramps as one of our appetizers, we were told that the farmer was stuck in traffic on his way to the restaurant with them. Our server later let us know they’d arrived; even though we were mid-entrée by then, we ordered some. It was worth the wait.

As impressive as the food was, so were the affordable prices. By the time the four of us were done, we’d ordered four appetizers, four entrées, four sides, four desserts and two coffees. The grand total before tip was a modest $125. They don’t have a liquor license yet, so you can bring your own wine, making meals an even better deal.

If you’d like to know more about mado and Rob and Allison Levitt, there’s an excellent article in a recent issue of New City Chicago. The article is why we were there on the second night they were open. The food is why we will be back again and again.

mado 1647 North Milwaukee, 773/342-2340

Revisiting the French film that got me hooked

April 16, 2008

I wasn’t always a sucker for French movies. And I don’t unconditionally love them all—there are some amazingly bad ones out there, after all. But whether roaming the video store or checking the movie listings, I find myself inordinately ready to give French films a chance. I can trace it all back to wandering into an art theater in St. Louis one evening and seeing the quietly charming The Two of Us.

Set in German-occupied France, it tells the story of a young Jewish boy in Paris sent by his parents to live in the country with an elderly Catholic couple until the liberation. The old man is “staunchly anti-Semitic,” as one reviewer put it, so the boy must hide his identity.

The intense bond that forms between the two of them is the story. And the brilliant performances of the two leads—Michel Simon as Grampa and nine-year-old, first-time actor Alain Cohen as Claude—make the story come alive.

As does acclaimed director Claude Berri’s deft touch in his feature film debut. He avoids descending into cliché cuteness, showing the characters warts and all. Before being whisked off to the country, young Claude gets caught smoking, fighting and shoplifting, thus calling attention to his family and forcing them to move. And when the old man tries to pass along his anti-Semitic views to Claude, he pretends to go along with his views, but then teases him. At one point, Grampa is trying to teach Claude how to spot a Jew; he tells him they always have big noses and wear their hats to the dinner table. The boy points out Simon’s beret and his impressively bulbous nose, then runs through the house, yelling in mock alarm, “Grampa’s a Jew!”

Equally charming is Berri’s affectionate but unsentimental view of country life in France in the 1940s. The scenes with the schoolchildren at the one-room country school especially capture the rough edges of rural life, and the outdoor Sunday dinner with Grampa’s grown son and his wife, its delights.

For all these reasons, The Two of Us is a film to see. When it was rereleased in 2005, actor Alain Cohen said in an interview in the New York Times that the theme of the film was “the ambivalent difference between real evil and evil lightly performed. It’s impossible to hate the character played by Michel Simon. Yet he does say hateful things. You might think that’s Claude Berri’s way of telling us that anti-Semitism isn’t really all that bad. But I think it suggests just the opposite—that even under the appearance of good, evil can exist, that this nice grandfather, who adores his little rabbits, could be on the dark side of history.”

Perhaps so. But I think the theme could as easily be the folly of prejudice. We are taught certain prejudicial views—by our families and friends, by society, the media, church, government… But when we actually have a chance to explore them, we find they are false.

If you like French films, see The Two of Us. And if you think you don’t like them, see it anyway. It’s a misconception you’ll be happy to let go of.

The dark side of Paris, by way of San Francisco

April 9, 2008

San Francisco-based mystery writer Cara Black‘s Paris-based heroine is half French, half American. It is only fitting, since Cara seems to perpetually have a foot in both cities.

Cara was just in Chicago, on tour to promote the eighth book in her acclaimed mystery series set in Paris, Murder in the Murder in the Rue de Paradis [An Aimee Leduc Investigation]. We’ve known her for years now and have attended a number of her readings, but she still manages to surprise us with at least one new story about her lifelong connection to the City of Light. This visit was no exception.

As a teenager, she fell in love with the writings of Russian born, Paris-based writer Romain Gary. She fell in love the way only a teenager can, actually writing a letter to the author in care of his publisher.

Gary wrote her back. And as any [platonically] lovestruck teenager would, she took his home return address written on the back of the envelope as a personal invitation. So at age 18, on a backpacking trip around Europe, she found herself somewhat timidly ringing his doorbell.

He answered. She blurted. He closed the door. But just as she was about to leave, the door opened again and Gary appeared with his jacket. He walked her down to his corner café, where an espresso and a cigar were already waiting for him on the bar. When the bartender glanced at Cara, Gary simply said, “She’ll have the same.” So it was this intrepid 18-year-old was introduced to Romain Gary, espresso and cigars all in the course of one afternoon in Paris.

That is the level of intimacy her novels achieve with the city. Beginning with her first, Murder in the Marais, she has concentrated on a single neighborhood or arrondissement with each book. [Paris is divided into 20 arrondissements—we Cara fans are hoping that means there are another dozen adventures to come for Aimée and her dwarf business partner René.] Cara drills deep in her research for her books. She walks the neighborhoods, talks to shop owners and concierges and eavesdrops on conversations, sometimes inserting herself into them and being led on adventures by her new friends. And yes, I’m talking about the author here, not her sleuth.

She also makes friends. In the police department, the morgue, among retired inspectors… all in an effort to get it right. And get it right she does. So much so that one of her books, Murder in the Sentier, has just been published in French! This would be akin to a French writer setting a novel in New York, for instance [as a native, not a visitor], and nailing the mood, the details, the soul of the city so completely that an American publisher would think there was an audience for it here.

The Aimée Leduc Investigation series. Cara’s protagonist runs a computer security firm. She has spiked hair [they’re set in the ’90s], a Bichon Frisé named Miles Davis and a taste for spike heels and bad boys. [Cara’s eyes always light up when she says this last part.] Although her business is kind of dry and techy, the adventures she gets drawn into are almost never business related or for paying clients—much to the chagrin of partner René. They are, however, invariably exciting.

The books each stand alone, but are best read in order. There’s an underlying story arc involving the mysterious disappearance of Aimée’s mother when she was just a girl. With each book, Aimée discovers a little more about her, but feels she knows even less. Even Cara doesn’t know how this will resolve itself.

So collect the whole set. You’ll find the complete list at Cara’s website. You can even order books through her husband Jun’s San Francisco bookstore. You’ll also find a link to her Paris blog there. No photos yet, but quick stories and links to news stories. I’ll work on her regarding photos.

A museum! At night! With wine! We are so there.

April 2, 2008

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There’s a lively, happy holiday song that office supplies company Staples hilariously appropriates for its back-to-school sale TV commercial every year. Parents gleefully shop for school supplies as their kids look glumly on; meanwhile, Andy Williams cheerfully sings to us that “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

That’s how we feel about Members Night at the Field Museum.

For starters, the Field is one of our favorite museums, chock full of fascinating things that teach us about both the natural world and the many and varied cultures humankind has created over the millennia. Anytime you get mummies and dinosaurs—including Sue, the largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton in the world—in the same place, you’re off to an interesting start. But there are also cases of butterflies, a Pawnee Earth Lodge, Aztec and Incan treasures, fossil plants… and room after room after room of amazing natural life played out in taxidermy dioramas. Like the imposing grouping of water buffaloes above. Equal parts awe-inspiring and slightly surreal, these displays give most of us the most intimate view we will ever have of the creatures that share the planet with us. The museum not only wows you with its amazing collection, it goes to great lengths to tell you why it all matters.

Just as important as the exhibits—arguably even more so—is the work the staff does in the field. At any given moment, the museum has teams of scientists and anthropologists all over the planet, not only collecting and cataloging, but furthering science with their research both on expeditions and back at the museum. And on any given Members Night, you get to talk to some of these people.

We begin every Members Night visit the same way. We head for the Great Hall, get wristbanded for alcohol consumption, buy our drink tickets and grab a glass of wine. As cool as just being at the museum is for us, being there after hours with a drink in hand ramps it all up considerably. We have to be careful, though. At a similar event at the Shedd Aquarium once, instead of marveling at the beauty and diversity of the sea creatures on display, Marion just found herself wondering how each might taste.

time-flies.jpgWine in hand, we immediately head behind the scenes. Members Night is like an all access pass to a rock show, only for science geeks. All those places usually marked No Admittance? You’re admitted. You get to wander the halls, peer into offices, see what scientists put up on their walls and doors—there were fewer Far Side cartoons this year than in previous visits. You get to see where work gets done, exhibits get planned, where at least some of the museum’s vast collection of study specimens is stored. While the museum’s exhibition space is vast, high-ceilinged and continuously being updated, behind the scenes is a fascinating rabbit’s warren of utilitarian, dark corridors with pipes and wiring snaking overhead. Dark wood doors with frosted glass windows open onto cluttered offices and brightly lit laboratories.

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Coolest of all, though, is you get to meet the people who work in this fascinating environment. And rather than being irritated about having to work extra hours on these two nights every year, they are genuinely delighted to be surrounded by people interested in what they do. Asking someone a question is like flipping an on switch. Fascinating information just starts pouring out.

On our most recent Members Night visit last week:

Marion and her sister Lena learned that ancient textiles are often repaired with one of three grades of Japanese paper made from mulberry bark, extremely strong, but so light and thin it “feels almost like nothing,” as Marion said.

dodo.jpgI learned that, unlike humans, all birds have circular disklike bones in the backs of their eyes, and that, like humans, they have kneecaps. I learned this from a scientist seated next to the case of live dermisted flesh-eating beetles that clean study skeletons for the museum. She was carefully tweezing little bits of gristle and flesh they’d missed on tiny bird skeletons as we talked; Members Night is not for the squeamish.

We spoke with a zoologist whose current project is photographing minute flies that live on bats. The flies are so specialized that each species of fly lives not only on one particular species of bat, but only on one specific part of that bat. Around the neck, for instance, or under the wing [which Marion kept calling the armpit, and the zoologist kept gently correcting her]. As a bit of trivia, this is interesting enough. But it is anything but trivial; it is yet one more bit of evidence that every environmental choice we make affects many, many more fellow inhabitants of this planet than we can begin to imagine.

One might think this event would be about as well attended as a Friends of Sylvia Plath poetry reading. Well, one would be wrong. It is packed both nights every year. And not just by the pocket protector crowd—it is about as diverse an audience as you’ll find anywhere, by any measure you choose. Of course, if you’re still reading this, chances are I’ve stirred your inner geek too. Maybe we’ll see you there next year. Marion’s already trying to work out a way for us to get in both nights next time.